The book tells of the narrator's sojourn in a small Russian village and his encounter there with Vera, a woman twenty years older than him. Like so many of the village woman the man to whom Vera is committed has not returned after World War II, but in Vera's case there has been no definite news of what happened to him; she has become 'the woman who waited'.
Initially, the narrator is scathing in his assessment of the life that Vera leads, teaching children not her own and tending the needs of those women now too old to look after their more physically strenuous wants. He stereotypes her as a woman that life has passed by and seems to see her as someone who has given up on those activities that for him typify living, activities centred, for the most part, round one's own personal desires and satisfaction. However, gradually the reader, if not necessarily narrator himself, comes to see that it is Vera who has the deep and complex understanding of what being alive is all about while the narrator is stunted by his own selfish and self-centred perspective. If he can't change his awareness of what is important in life he is the one who will live, and eventually die, unfulfilled. Embedded in the narrative is a description of a mirror that has cracked.
Its upper portion reflects the forest treetops and the sky. The face of anyone looking into it is thrust up towards the clouds. The lower part reflects the rutted road, the feet of people walking past and, if you glance sideways, the line of the lake, now blue, now dark.
The mirror, for me, became the controlling image that guided my reading. Vera's life might be said to have cracked and the narrator is clearly seeing what remains as the rutted road, but there is the other view, the view that thrusts you up towards the clouds. For whatever Vera's life might lack it is full of love and of commitment. And it is commitment to others that the narrator cannot embrace. Indeed, the moment he thinks that someone might have a call on him he is panic stricken and can think only of escaping. For a moment the narrative shifts into present tense, a tense that isolates in the immediate and admits of no connection with what has gone before or what might yet be to come. Vera lives and loves in a community that needs her while he is left alone.
The blurb on the jacket tells me that Makine has a list of publications about which I knew nothing, including Le Testament Francais, which won the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. This has to be my next purchase, I think, because I certainly want to read more by this remarkable author.
Cross posted at http://patternings.typepad.co./patternings